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Netflix hosted two conversations on its studio lot on Saturday for Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story and The Watcher — its most recent and biggest series, both which have come courtesy of Ryan Murphy.
Murphy served as moderator for both discussions, marking one of the first press events surrounding Dahmer since it has become one of Netflix’s most viewed shows ever — and as Murphy mentioned during the event, the biggest hit of the super-producer’s career.
As the show nears one billion hours streamed, Murphy admitted it was “something that none of us understood or saw coming,” but he has two theories as to why it took off. “I feel like the world is such a dark place, and people are looking for somewhere to put their anxiety, and that’s one thing,” he said. “The other thing is I think since COVID, people have been really interested in the idea of mental health, and in the show, every character has a moment talking about that.”
One of the highlights of its success, Murphy said, came in an emotional discussion with star Niecy Nash, who took part in the conversation alongside Evan Peters and Richard Jenkins. Nash plays Glenda Cleveland, Dahmer’s neighbor who on many occasions tried to alert police about his murders but was always ignored.
“I cried like a baby because I said to Ryan, it is my prayer that wherever Glenda Cleveland’s soul is resting that she finally feels heard,” she said. “She finally knows that her story has gone all around the world. That was important to me.”
During the conversation, Peters also admitted he was terrified to take on the role of the serial killer — who gruesomely murdered 17 men between 1978 and 1991 — and went back on forth on if he should do it. To prepare, he put weights on his arms to mirror Dahmer’s walking style and wore the character’s shoes, jeans and glasses for months of prep, along with extensive research and dialect work.
He was so deep in character, “People will say, ‘What is Evan like?’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know that man,'” joked Nash.
“Doing the role, I wanted to give it 120 percent the whole way through, so I brought in a lot of darkness and negativity,” Peters explained of his process. “It was just having that end goal in sight, knowing when we were going to wrap and finally being able to breathe and let it go and say, ‘OK, now it’s time to bring in the joy and the lightness and watch comedies and romances and go back to St. Louis and see my family and friends and yeah, watch Step Brothers.'”
“Evan Peters, you and me in a rom-com right after this,” Nash teased, as Peters replied, “Oh I’m down.”
The series has received backlash from victims’ families, some of whom have accused the streamer and the team for not reaching out to them. Murphy reiterated his previous comments that his team had reached out to 20 family and friends of the victims with no response and said he had four or five researchers working on the show to make sure they got it right.
“We tried to interpret the story but also going into that we definitely had something to say. I had something as an artist. I felt this was the biggest thing that I had ever worked on that sort of explored the idea of white privilege,” Murphy said. “I mean, this guy was basically busted 10 times and got away, and I wanted to tell that story. I wanted to tell a story about homophobia. I wanted to tell a story about policing. I wanted to tell a story about racism, systemic racism. We were very conscious of talking about all of those things over and over and over in the writers room and with the actors as well.”
“I felt responsible to get it right,” added Nash. “There were many days I left set with tears in my eyes because the weight of all of these things happening and knowing that all of it didn’t have to.”
Murphy also led a discussion of The Watcher during the event, with stars Naomi Watts, Jennifer Coolidge, Margo Martindale and Noma Dumezweni participating remotely. The show follows a real-life story, this one of the new owners of a New Jersey home who start receiving anonymous letters from someone calling themselves “The Watcher,” with specific and threatening details about the family.
Murphy mentioned that Watts had told him it was her biggest hit since The Ring, as she said, “I was so happy to be back in this genre. I’ve had good success with it, and as an actor, there’s a lot of emotions that come under the umbrella of fear.”
“There have been big reactions for all of us, and it feels very different to be in something that is actually being received so well across the board, like in major ways,” she continued. “It’s very often you put your work out there and people just don’t get to see it. So, it’s a nice feeling.” Martindale noted she’s been surrounded by fans when she goes out in New York recently, which she’s never had before.
Murphy also revealed his conversations with bringing Coolidge to the project, saying that she agreed to do it if she got to kill someone. “You were very interested in the idea, that I find fascinating, of playing a darker, ruthless character that you said nobody in a million years has thought to write for you,” Murphy said. “I’m like, ‘I want you to play something like that, someone who is villainous.'”
“No one really thinks of me when it comes to maybe a dark, evil person or someone who’s not really very nice,” Coolidge confirmed. “I’ve always had a fantasy about it.”
The series is based on a story that was detailed in The Cut in 2018, and Murphy noted, “When we got the rights, we were trying to be respectful to the family. They had certain caveats about their children, which we were on board with. And when we were filming it and making it, all of you are actually based on either real people or people in our research.”
As for the breakout success of these two true-crime stories, Watts mused, “It’s so clear, there is an appetite for it right now. There’s a lot of darkness in the world and a lot of chaos… Maybe it’s a way to try and understand what’s going on and unpack things — a sense of needing control by figuring things out.”
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Thomas Brodie Sangster